By Will Graves The Associated Press
Zach Aston-Reese pondered the question for a minute.
“I’m not exactly sure who is on their first line,” the Penguins forward said when asked how Pittsburgh plans to slow down Montreal’s top line in their best-of-five play-in series that begins Saturday in Toronto.
The answer made it sound like he was throwing a little bit of shade at the Canadiens. He wasn’t. He was simply providing a glimpse into how strange – and how long – this protracted NHL season has become in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hard to blame him. When the 2019-20 season screeched to a halt in mid-March, the Canadiens appeared on their way to missing the post-season for a third straight time. Now they find themselves as the last team in a 24-club tournament facing the healthy and far more star-laden Penguins, including three-time Stanley Cup champions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“Obviously, they’ve been two of the top players in the league for a long time,” said 20-year-old Montreal forward Nick Suzuki. “They’ve been in a lot of playoffs and I’ve always been watching. I’m definitely up for the challenge. I know it’s going to be a difficult series but I think we’ve got a lot of young centremen who are eager to prove they can play against some of the top players.”
While the Penguins are favoured, they are also wary. The Canadiens are young but not totally bereft of experience. Goaltender Carey Price is a six-time All-Star. Captain Shea Weber reached the Cup Final in 2017 while playing for Nashville.
“They have a lot of great players on their team,” Aston-Reese said. “They play a fast, great skilled game and they have a great goaltender in net.”
Maybe, but the Canadiens will have to find a way to deal with a team that is – for once – at full strength. Penguins All-Star forward Jake Guentzel’s season seemed to be over when he underwent shoulder surgery on Dec. 31. Now he will be out there next to Crosby on Pittsburgh’s first line looking to recapture the sense of chemistry that has worked so well for the two cerebral stars since Guentzel splashed onto the scene in 2017.
Then again, it’s a short series being played in an empty arena in a “bubble” designed to help the NHL pull this off. It’s going to be memorable. And it’s going to be weird.
“We’re all in uncharted water here,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “That’s part of what makes it exciting.”
Penguins goaltender Matt Murray has already captured two Stanley Cups in his young career. Tristan Jarry became an unlikely All-Star following a stellar first half in which Murray struggled.
Sullivan has done his best to tamp down any sense of a goalie controversy, insisting his team will need to rely on both to advance.
If history is any indicator, however, every time Sullivan has been forced to choose between Murray and another goaltender, he’s always turned toward the quiet 26-year-old who has a 28-19 playoff record.
YOU OK SID?
Crosby missed two months over the winter following hernia surgery and was slowed with an undisclosed health issue in the run-up to the series with the Canadiens. The two-time MVP’s teammates, however, aren’t exactly worried about his status.
“He looks good every day,” Guentzel said. “Obviously, it’s nice to have him out there. He’s the catalyst for our team, so whenever he’s out there, and just the way he plays, I think he makes us that much better.”
This isn’t the first time a seemingly overmatched Montreal team faced the Penguins in the post-season. A decade ago, the eighth-seeded Canadiens stunned Washington in the first round then took out defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh in the second.
“We can be underdogs all day, that’s fine,” Weber said. “It’s a situation that we’ve all been in before, and nobody should take offence from that – and no one should listen to it. I think the belief in this room is that anything can happen. You look at the history of playoffs over the years and strange things have happened. Teams go on a roll at the right time, get good goaltending, stay healthyâ€¦ and you just never know what can happen.”
The Canadien Press contributed to this report.